But the discovery of the earliest-known shopping list to include an order for tea– or “China drink”, as it was then known – might also have left a bitter aftertaste.
The note to an apothecarist for a four shilling bottle of the beverage to be delivered to the Tudor-Jacobean Temple Newsam House in Leeds, was found by chance among the archives.
Dated December 8, 1644, it is 16 years older than an entry by the diarist Samuel Pepys which was previously thought to have been the earliest independent reference to tea drinking.
Pepys recorded that “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before”.
Rachel Conroy, curator at Temple Newsam, who found the note in the West Yorkshire archive at Wakefield, said she realised its significance at once.
“It’s really intriguing,” she said. “It’s a reference to tea before anyone knew really what it was.”
“It shows the people who once lived at Temple Newsam were among the first in the country to enjoy a cup of tea before it became such a staple.”
The drink had become popular among well-heeled habitués of London’s coffee houses at the time of Pepys’ reference, when it was being sold at up to £10 a pound by importers who claimed it would help in “preserving perfect health until extreme old age” and “making the body active and lusty”.
But in 1644, refreshment may not have been what the family of Sir Arthur Ingram, the landowner and politician who owned Temple Newsam House, needed. The staving off of illness may have been a greater concern, Ms Conroy suggested.
“The receipts show that they were buying quite a bit of it,” she said. “There are more orders dated December 15, 18 and 21, for ‘another bottle of the same’.
“It might have meant they were enjoying it but it could also have been a sign that someone in the house was really ill.”
The medicinal qualities of tea had been fiercely debated since the great clippers began to carry it by the crate from the far east. Critics said it induced “over-stimulation”, and a reference in 1753 warns that excessive tea drinking was likely to “make epilepsy worse” and “cause hysteric fits”.
The Ingrams purchased their tea from a chemist trading as M Bayns, but it is unclear whether he was on the Temple Newsam estate or in London.
Sold in glass bottles at around six times the average daily wage for a skilled craftsman, tea was an exotic purchase in civil war England, even for a well-heeled individual such as Sir Arthur – and its rumoured efficacy as a cure may have meant it was bought out of necessity, Miss Conroy said.
“The list also mentions a syrup for night, a cordial potion, pectoral powders and ingredients for a broth. Someone may have had a horrible cold,” she said.
Dabbling in exotic and controversial substances may not have been entirely out of character for Sir Arthur, who was described by his biographer as “a rapacious, plausible swindler who ruined many during a long and successful criminal career”.
He had paid £12,000 for Temple Newsam House 20 years before his first order for tea, and his descendants hired the architect Capability Brown to landscape its grounds.
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